Are There Side Effects Associated with At-Home Genetic Health Risk Tests?

An at-home test that analyzes the DNA in saliva to determine a person’s risk for certain diseases sounds promising. But what side effects are there?

If you could find out whether you are at increased risk for developing a serious condition, such as Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, based on your genes, would you? Undoubtedly, many people would say yes since as a result, they might be able to make lifestyle changes or alert their doctors.

This is the appeal of genetic health risk (GHR) tests. A matter of weeks ago, the FDA gave approval to the first-ever direct-to-consumer version of such a test, made by a company called 23andMe. The test is simple: Spit in a tube to get a saliva sample, return it to 23andMe, and using an analysis of genetic variants in a person’s DNA, determine if they are at increased genetic risk for 10 diseases or conditions.

At face value, it seems like there could be little to argue against such a test – except perhaps for the $199 price tag (23andMe also includes an assessment of your ancestry in that figure). However, there are some concerns. The first that comes to my mind is how a person interprets the results. Let’s say a person finds out that they are at an increased risk for Parkinson’s based on a genetic variation. They might immediately think they will get the memory-robbing disease, leading to emotions including anger, anxiety and depression.

Excessive Worry As a Side Effect

At MedShadow, we like to talk about side effects of drugs and how you should be aware of them. While there aren’t side effects from the test itself, I do worry that another side effect may manifest itself in some people when they get the results: Panic. Finding out you may be at risk for a serious condition is sure to unnerve even the calmest person. Similarly, if a test comes back negative for any of the 10 diseases, it might give a person a false sense of security they won’t eventually develop any of them.

One side effect that may occur in some people when they get the results: Panic.

“It’s important for people to know that even if they have a mutation in the genes, by and large they won’t get Parkinson’s disease,” James Beck, chief scientific officer of the Parkinson’s Foundation, told STAT.

There’s also a risk that the test could provide a false positive or negative. That’s why the FDA rightly recommends that consumers speak to their doctor if they have questions about the results.

Tests, Not Medical Diagnoses

If you are interested in the 23andMe test, you should understand that it is not a medical diagnosis. Nor is it a complete assessment of your risk for a disease. As the FDA noted in a news release, GHR tests “cannot determine a person’s overall risk of developing a disease or condition. In addition to the presence of certain genetic variants, there are many factors that contribute to the development of a health condition, including environmental and lifestyle factors.”

In the end, the 23andMe test may not tell you all that much about your future health risk. And while the financial cost is $199, there may be additional costs to people in terms of needless worrying and reading too much into genetic test results.


Jonathan Block

Jonathan Block

Jonathan Block is an associate editor at BioCentury, which provides news and information about the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. Prior to joining BioCentury in 2019, Jonathan worked for MedShadow as content editor. He has been an editor and writer for multiple pharmaceutical, health and medical publications, including The Pink Sheet, Modern Healthcare, Health Plan Week and Psychiatry Advisor. He holds a BA from Tufts University and is earning an MPH with a focus on health policy from the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy.


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